Free Standing Shelving

Free standing shelf units have several advantages over wall-mounted or built in ones. They can easily be moved if the room layout is changed. They can be moved away from the wall to allow painting or papering. They can even be taken along when moving house. However, they have drawbacks too. Some manufactured shelving and display units are rather flimsy, and may twist out of square or sag if they are heavily loaded. In general, better results are found in building units that use strong materials such as natural wood and plywood. The other problem is getting them to stand upright against the wall; skirting’s (baseboards) prevent standard units from being pushed back flush with the wall surface, and carpet gripper strips make them lean forward slightly. The answer is to design the side supports on the cantilever principle with just one point of contact with the floor, as far as possible from the wall, so that the unit presses more firmly against the wall as the load on the shelves is increased.

Since a shelf unit is basically a box with internal dividers, it can be constructed in several different ways, using simple butt joints or more complicated housings. Perhaps the best compromise is to use gilled butt joints reinforced with hardwood dowels, which give the joints the extra rigidity they need in a unit of this sort.

Start by deciding on the dimensions of the unit, then select materials to suit the likely load the shelves will have to support. Mark up and cut matching groups of components to length in batches to ensure that they are all precisely the same size. Pre-drill all the dowel holes, using a drill stand and depth stop for holes in the board laces and a dowelling jig for those in the board ends. Insert the dowels and make up the joints. A thin plywood or hardboard backing panel can be pinned (racked) on to give the unit extra rigidity.


  1. Clamp groups of identical components together. Mark them to length and cut them in one operation to ensure that they are all the same length.
  2. Mark the positions of the shelf dowel holes on the unit sides, ensuring that they match. Drill them all to the required depth, using a drill stand if possible.
  3. Use the dowelling jig to drill the dowel holes in the shelf ends. This ensures that the holes are correctly positioned and centered, and are drilled straight.
  4. Glue the dowels and rap them into the holes in the shell ends. Ensure that they all project by the same amount, and cut down any that are overlong.
  5. Assemble the unit by gluing one end of each of the three shelves and joining them to a side panels. Then glue the other ends and add the second side panel.
  6. Cut a hardboard or plywood backing panel. Check that it is perfectly square, then pin (tack) it to the bark of the unit